A Place Called Hope: Tour the Arkansas Town at the Center of the Bill Clinton, Mike Huckabee Rivalry

It's "a place called Hope."

ByABC News
May 8, 2015, 10:27 AM

HOPE, Arkansas -- Mike Huckabee grew up less than a five minute drive from Bill Clinton’s childhood home, but he doesn’t hold any warm or neighborly feelings toward the former president.

The two political stars were born in the same hospital, attended the same kindergarten and went to the same elementary school -- although nearly a decade apart. The men, who both served as governors of Arkansas, never lived in Hope at the same time, but both have used their small hometown to their political benefit.

As Huckabee, 59, kicks off his second run for the White House, he’s making his southwestern Arkansas upbringing a centerpiece of his campaign, much as Clinton did in his 1992 presidential run. But now the two men from Hope are pitted against each other with both Huckabee and Hillary Clinton seeking the same office.

Huckabee returned to his birthplace earlier this week to announce that he, too, hopes to one day become president.

In announcing his candidacy, Huckabee invoked memories of learning to swim, ride a bike, handle a firearm and tell “the difference between right and wrong.” He said he “grew up in a small town that was far removed from the power, the money and the influence that runs this country.”

So, how did such a small town produce two Arkansas governors -- one of whom became president and one who aspires to follow him to Pennsylvania Avenue?

"Before Clinton, Hope was known for growing the largest watermelons in the world,” Dennis Ramsey, the city's mayor since 1993 and for several years in the 1980s, told ABC News. “I guess it’s something in the watermelons. That answer’s as good as any.”

But even with its famous fruit, it was Clinton who put Hope on the map.

Clinton is beloved here: A major thoroughfare bears his name, his first home is a tourist attraction run by the National Park Service, and the town’s visitor center has his life on display. But Huckabee’s familiarity is just as real, according to Ramsey, who also runs three bank branches in the area.

“When he walks on the street, he knows most people by name,” Ramsey said. The mayor, who seemed to know most people himself when he stopped at a downtown burger joint one day this week, remembered a young Huckabee walking to the fire station to see his firefighter father; Ramsey’s stepfather was also a fireman.

At the firehouse, the assistant fire chief said he used to work with Huckabee’s brother-in-law at a nearby steel joist plant; several people cited similar extended-family ties to Huckabee or his wife.

“Everybody likes him,” the fireman, Carroll Schmitt, said, calling Huckabee a “good Christian.”

“There’ll be real strong support,” he added.

A short film about Clinton’s childhood in Arkansas played at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, portraying him as a product of the middle class. Clinton memorably closed his remarks at the convention by declaring, “I still believe in a place called Hope.”

"When he made that statement, 'I still believe in a place called Hope,' our world changed," Ramsey said. "For a time, Hope became the center of the universe."

Huckabee’s campaign has already taken a page out of the Clinton notebook. A video that played before Huckabee’s announcement Tuesday trumped what it portrayed as his uphill battle against “Bill Clinton’s Arkansas” when he became governor. Another showed Huckabee driving past his old house, the fire station and Clinton’s boyhood home – “we won’t spend a lot of time here,” he says with a chuckle.

"I hope I never forget where I come from,” he says, sitting outside the home. “I hope I never forget this porch. I hope I never forget what it’s like to live in a neighborhood where neighbors know about each other and care about each other.”

But Huckabee’s ascension was, in fact, enabled by Clinton’s own rise. When then-governor Clinton became president, Arkansas’ lieutenant governor became governor and Huckabee ran in a special election for the office, after losing a U.S. Senate run. He served for several years before rising to the governorship when the previous governor resigned amid scandal.

Clinton, 68, moved to nearby Hot Springs, Ark., at age seven, two years before Huckabee was born. Huckabee, on the other hand, lived in town through college and met his wife there. He returns regularly for high school reunions, according to the mayor.

Founded in 1875 along just-built railroad tracks, Hope boasts a population of around 10,500. It’s a low-to-middle income place with a diverse economy – poultry and steel joist plants and a large-scale bakery are big employers. It is about 43 percent black, 34 percent white and 21 percent Hispanic, according to 2010 U.S. Census data, with neighborhoods still partly delineated along racial lines decades after integration, Ramsey said.

While much in Hope hasn’t changed over the years, Huckabee's campaign comes after a marked recent shift in the area toward the Republican Party. Statewide, the last time a Democratic presidential candidate received Arkansans’ electoral votes was in the 1990s, when Clinton was running.

Ramsey, the mayor, said he’s an independent who has never endorsed a candidate for office. But he said he was grateful for the notoriety and economic “shot in the arm” Clinton’s win gave Hope and recognized the uniqueness of potentially claiming two presidents as native sons.

“Not many towns,” he said, “can say they’re the birthplace of a president."